Getting In - The social logic of Ivy League Admissions

by Malcolm Gladwell - excerpts

New Yorker magazine Oct 10, 2005, page 80


At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training - that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide. Fueling (this) idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same SAT scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and won of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road.

Does an Ivy League education really help one?

It's quite possible that the student who goes to Harvard is more ambitious and energetic than the student who wasn't let in, and that those same intangibles are what account for his better career success. To assess the effect of the Ivies, it makes more sense to compare the student who got into a top school with the student who got into that same school but chose to go to a less selective one. Three years ago, the economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale published just such a study. And they found that when you compare apples and apples the income bonus from selective schools disappears.

Krueger says: "Now you would think that the more ambitious student is the one who would choose to go to Penn, and the one choosing Penn State might be a little less confident in their abilities or have a little lower income, and both of those factors would point to people doing worse later on. But they don't." Kruger points out one exception to this. Students from the very lowest economic strata do seem to benefit from going to an Ivy. For most students, though, the general rule seems to be that if you are hardworking and intelligent you'll end up doing well regardless of where you went to school.

After Harvard College adopted the College Entrance Examination Board (SAT) tests in 1905 as the principal basis for admission, the enrollment of Jews began to rise dramatically. As a group they (Jews) were academically superior to everyone else....In the wake of the Jewish (enrollment) crisis, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton chose to adopt what might be called the "best graduate" approach to admissions. The Ivy League schools justified their emphasis on character and personality by arguing that they were searching for the students who would have the greatest success after college. They were looking for leaders, and leadership, the officials of the Ivy League believed, was not a simple matter of academic brilliance. (Former Harvard admissions dean) Wilbur Bender believes: "Above a reasonably good level of mental ability, above that indicated by a 550-600 level of SAT scores, the only thing that matters in terms of future impact on, or contribution to, society is the degree of personal inner force an individual has."

At the same time that Harvard was constructing its byzantine admissions system, Hunter College Elementary school in New York required simply that applicants take and exam and if they scored in the top fifty they got in. In the nineteen eighties, a handful of educational researchers surveyed the students who attended the (Hunter) elementary school between 1948 and 1960. This was a group with an average IQ of 157 - three and a half standard deviations above the mean - who had been given what, by any measure was one of the finest classroom experiences in the world. As graduates, though, they weren't nearly as distinguished as they were expected to be. The researchers spend a great deal of time trying to figure out why Hunter graduates were so disappointing, and end up sounding like Wilbur Bender. Being a smart child isn't a terribly good predictor of success in later life, they conclude. "Non-intellective" factors - like motivation and social skills - probably matter more (bold type by Sloan). Perhaps, the study suggests, "after noting the sacrifices involved in trying for national or world class leadership in a field, HCES graduates decided that the intelligent thing to do was to choose relatively happy and successful lives."

Law schools look beyond just brains

Most elite law schools, to cite another example, follow a best-students model. That's why they rely so heavily on the LSAT. Yet there's no reason to believe that a person's LSAT scores have much relation to how good a lawyer he will be. In a recent research project funded for the Law School Admissions Council, the Berkeley researchers Sheldon Zedek and Marjorie Shultz identified twenty-six "competencies" that they think effective lawyering demands - among them practical judgement, passion and engagement, legal research skills, negotiation skills, stress management, and so on - - and the LSAT picks up only a handful of them. A law school that wants to select the best possible lawyers has to use a very different admissions process from a law school that wants to select the best possible law students.

Athletes have success advantages

In the 2001 book, "The Game of Life," James L. Shulman and William Bowen (a former president of Princeton) conducted an enormous statistical analysis on an issue that has become one of the most contentious in admissions: the special preference given to recruited athletes at selective universities. Shulman and Bowen think the preference given to athletes by the Ivy League is shameful. Halfway through the book, however, Shulman and Bowen present what they call a "surprising" finding. Male athletes, despite their lower SAT scores and grades, and despite the fact that many of them are members of minorities and come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, turn out to earn a lot more than their peers. Apparently, athletes are far more likely to go in to the high-paying financial services sector, where they succeed because of their personality and psychological makeup. Bowman and Shulman write:

"One of these characteristics can be thought of as drive - a strong desire to succeed and unswerving determination to reach a goal, whether it be winning the next game or closing a sale. Similarly, athletes tend to be more energetic than the average person, which translates into an ability to work hard over long periods of time - to meet, for example the workload demands placed n young people by an investment bank in the throes of analyzing a transaction. In addition, athletes are more likely than others to be highly competitive, gregarious and confident of the ability to work well in groups (on teams)."

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